Anyone with a Netflix account has seen the success of online clothing store Nasty Gal. The streaming service’s original series "Girlboss" outlined the rise of Sophia Amoruso, a vintage clothes seller turned memoir writer who flipped the idea of starting an online store on its head. The CEO started her business as a small eBay store and transformed it into an empire valued at $200 million. In 2017, with an unfortunate bankruptcy under its belt, Nasty Gal still sold to British online retail giant Boohoo.com for $20 million. So, how do you have that kind of success? It starts with launching an online store.
Come Up with Online Store Ideas
Nasty Gal may have been valued at $200 million during the peak of their fame, but longtime fans of the brand know that over the years Nasty Gal faced a number of competitors who undercut the prices of their already-expensive fast-fashion wares and offered more or less the same thing. This contributed to their bankruptcy, which is why if you’re starting an online store, your idea has to be completely solid.
“Make sure you have a cohesive idea and vision before you start a business,” said Nicole Florio, a Long Island-based artist who sells upcycled wares in her Etsy shop Nifty Recyclables. “I knew I always wanted to upcycle items into planters and decor, so I started with three or four products to begin. I made sure to not go overboard with buying supplies [and] making finished products just in case things didn’t work out. I didn’t want to get way ahead of myself and then be out a lot of money. You have to be practical in that sense.”
As a rule, it’s a good idea to scope out your competition. The best online store ideas are those that offer something unique at competitive prices. Test the waters before you dive in.
Get Your Stock
There are a lot of online store ideas out there, but you’re going to need to purchase stock whether you’re selling artwork, electronics or leather jackets. You might choose to reach out to wholesalers or small designers who give online retailers the opportunity to buy their wares at wholesale prices.
Starting small means you probably don’t need to find an investor. In the early stages, it’s best not to have an overly complicated product line. Samantha Freeman, who runs Brooklyn-based enamel pin shop PinPoint, said that it only took $400 for her to launch her brand’s first four designs. They increased their product line as their sales went up.
Mary Mongelluzzo, a top-rated eBay seller with her shop Mary’s Basement Bargains, said that she started “very low level” by listing gently used items on eBay. A year later, she opened a genuine eBay store, where she started selling gently used items for herself and her friends. She began by purchasing items for a low price and reselling them for profit.
In the best-case scenario, getting stuck with loads of extra stock can bog down a business and hinder growth. In the worst case, it can bankrupt them. Instead, start small. It’s better to run out and create a demand than have too much left over.
Pick Your Platform
If you’re planning on starting an online store, you have to pick your platform. Shopify is a leader in the world of online sales and helps users create easily customizable websites with a sleek point of sale system. The service’s FAQ walks you through the ins and outs of an online store. This is a great option for established businesses or larger brands. Many online store owners opt for services like eBay, Etsy or Storenvy when they’re just starting out. These social marketplaces already have a built-in user base.
“I’ve made a few sales from social media, but Etsy is a platform where people come specifically for creative gifts, decor, apparel, etc., so I focus a lot of my energy on it,” said Florio. “I make sure my listed items have clear and professional photos, as well as very in-depth descriptions.”
Whether you start a Shopify business or opt for Etsy, there’s no right answer. It depends solely on your business model.
Prepare for Shipping
Shipping can make or break a business. Slow shipping times or incorrect orders will make customers abandon your brand altogether. Mongelluzzo recommended purchasing a small scale so you can weigh your items in advance and know what to charge for shipping.
“The thing that comes to mind for reaching top-rated seller status is that I ship items out within one day or the same day," she said. "It is very important to be organized, meaning you know where your items are, so when they are sold, you are not looking around for them.”
Market Your Store
The right marketing plan will put your store in front of potential customers. Many small businesses choose to start out on social media via paid Instagram or Facebook ads. Others opt for influencer marketing, a grassroots approach where a brand will collaborate with people who have larger followings on social media and encourage them to promote their products. Sometimes this means offering an affiliate program (where the influencers get a percentage of cash from each sale they bring you), and other times it means giving out free products with the hope that they’ll provide a positive review. Not all marketing has to cost money, though.
“Our platform of advertising our brand and name was strictly Instagram,” said Freeman, whose business has amassed more than 13,000 followers on the social network. “We made posts and hashtagged the [expletive] out of them, and our following just grew organically from there.”
Freeman also said that new social media algorithms have made advertising increasingly difficult, but the one thing you can count on is word of mouth. “Social media has been a bit tricky these days, [because of the] new algorithms, [and the] pay-to-play type of deal. The markets are harder to tap into because now you need to pay to get exposure, and although we do sometimes pay to advertise, we have found the best approach is to just tell anyone and everyone who will listen what we do. All of our new customers have [come in] through referrals.”
Be Prepared To Adapt
Whether you’re an eBay or Shopify business, the key to a solid online store is to adapt when trends change. For Freeman, shifting gears during a lull in the market led them to projects with major brands like Bloomberg, Nike and Netflix.
“Since our initial run in the market, the hype has died down a bit for original artwork designs. The market has become a little oversaturated with others doing what we do, and I think pins have shifted back to what they were originally intended for, which was for [brand recognition],” she says. “Our brand has adapted by offering custom pins for anyone and everyone with an idea for a pin. We help with all aspects from idea to artwork to the physical product.”
Remember that you might have the best online store idea, but it won’t always be on trend. If sales flounder, don’t hang up the towel. Instead, change your endgame.
Mariel Loveland is a small business owner, content strategist and writer from New Jersey. Throughout her career, she's worked with numerous startups creating content to help small business owners bridge the gap between technology and sales. Her work has been featured in publications like Business Insider and Vice.